Gentically modified plants which contain health boosting Omega-3 have been created by British scientists and will be harvested with weeks
The first genetically modified crops, enriched with nutrients to improve health, will be harvested within weeks following a landmark field trial in Britain.
In a major step towards GM food, a crop of camelina (false flax) has been spliced with genes which make Omega-3 so that its seeds will produce an oil rich in fatty acid normally only found in fish.
It is the first example of a new generation of so-called ‘nutraceuticals’ – plants whose genetic structure has been altered to introduce health-boosting properties.
If future trials are successful, the plant oil will initially be fed to farmed fish, such as salmon, to boost their Omega-3 content and make food healthier for shoppers.
But it could also be added to oils, used in spreads and yoghurts, or taken as a supplement.
“It is only a small trial but it’s a major step forward,” said Professor Jonathan Napier at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire where the crop has been growing for the past three months.
“Fish get fish oil from their diet when they swim in the sea but when you put them in a cage they can’t do that and you have to feed them smaller fish, otherwise fish would have no more Omega-3 in them than chicken.
“The problem is that there aren’t plenty of fish in the sea. One million tons of fish oil is removed from the seas every year and most of that goes into fish farming through fishmeal. It’s unsustainable.
“So this would eventually be used to make farmed fish healthier. But it could also provide direct nutrition to people, by being included in other foods, such as margarine or yoghurt.”
Omega-3 fatty acids have been widely linked to health benefits, such as lowering the risk of heart disease, cancers and neuro-degenerative diseases.
Although it is often described as fish oil, Omega-3 is in fact made by microscopic marine algae that are eaten or absorbed by fish.
Farmed fish grown in cages are unable to absorb sufficient Omega-3 in their diets so they have to be fed on smaller fish.
The Rothamsted Research scientists have copied and synthesised the genes from the algae and then spliced them into a plant called ‘Camelina sativa’ which is widely grown for its seed oil.
The crop has been planted in the Hertfordshire commuter town of Harpenden, just 30 minutes by train from Central London.
The site is a mix of high security and informality. Two perimeter fences, each 8ft high surround the crop, which is guarded by CCTV, security staff and Alsatians. While the plants were flowering in July, the crop was completely covered to deter insects and avoid cross-pollination.
However, locals are invited to roam on the nearby footpaths and encouraged to quiz the researchers about their experiments.
Unlike previous trials, where protesters scaled the fences and organised demonstrations outside Rothamsted, the trial has proceeded without problems.
“It does sort of look like Guantanamo,” Professor Napier admits, “But people here don’t view us as some shady government research institution. The fences are mainly there to preserve the experiment. We haven’t had problems with protesters or campaigners
“I think consumers find it easier to swallow when they know you are engineering a plant for health benefits rather than to repel insects.”
GM crops are already widely used in the US, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and India. Around 85 per cent of all corn crops in the US are now GM.
However, anti-GM critics claim that Omega-3 fish oils are implicated in the rise of prostate cancer, and it is not clear whether GM-derived fish oils will be safe for human or animal consumption.
Liz O’Neill, director of GM Freeze, said: “The idea of crops which are engineered to be healthier is very seductive and appears a laudable idea, but there are still big questions to answer and we still don’t know the risks.
“Fish farming is already an unsustainable industry so to use GM to prop it up seems to be a flawed idea.
“These plants have been out in the open, and once things are out in the open you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. There is now way they could have stopped slugs and snails getting in and spreading the seeds. The hazards are enormous.”
The process of making Omega-3 is so complex that scientists have had to tweak seven genes in the plant.
“This is most sophisticated GM experiment anywhere in the world,” added Professor Napier.
The crop, which looks like a mustard plant, will be harvested by the end of August when the seeds will be removed from the pods. The oil will then be extracted to find out if it does contain Omega-3 and to check that it is in sufficient quantities to be worthwhile. The team are hoping to publish the results by the end of the year.
“This is a taxpayer funded study so it is important that taxpayers know what we are up to,” added Prof Napier.
A second trial, double in size is scheduled to take place next year and, if successful, the plants could be grown on a commercial scale.
It is the first crop to be planted and harvested since a wide-ranging report, commissioned by the government, gave the green light to GM in March.
Sir Mark Walport, the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor recommended that Britain should begin production after finding GM crops were not only safe, but were likely to be more nutritious than current crops.
The project is taxpayer-funded through the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
Dr Paul Burrows, Executive Director, Corporate Policy and Strategy, said: “The BBSRC camelina project at Rothamsted Research is an example of plant technology being used to address a real world problem where there are currently no sustainable solutions.
“To get the project to this stage has required years of work in lab conditions but it is only when scientists can undertake studies in the field that we can see if the approach would work in real life farm applications.
Source – The Telegraph